On a green hillside in Afrin in northern Syria, Arab militiamen allied to the Turkish army which invaded this Kurdish enclave seven weeks ago have captured a group of terrified looking Kurdish civilians. The unformed and heavily armed militiamen are shouting “pigs”, “pimp” and “PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] pigs” all the while chanting “Allah Akbar [God Is Great]”. The Kurds, their hands raised in the air, are led away by the militiamen and their fate is unknown.
There are many such videos and still photographs from Afrin taken by Kurds and members of the Turkish forces showing the shelling and bombing of houses, the mangled bodies of children killed by the explosions and others of Kurdish civilians being herded away. One horrific selfie taken by a militiamen shows him staring at the camera while over his left shoulder is a burned out civilian car in which sits the corpse of the driver, his white teeth thrown into relief because the rest of his body is burned black.
If any of these images were coming out of Eastern Ghouta, they would be leading every television newscast and dominating the front pages. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, would be holding up pictures of dead and dying children. But because these events are happening in Afrin and not in Eastern Ghouta, in the same country but 200 miles apart, they are almost entirely ignored by both media and foreign politicians.
Afrin is seeing the beginnings of a tragedy that could be every bit as bad or worse than anything witnessed in Eastern Ghouta today or East Aleppo in 2016. Coming upon pictures of children buried under broken concrete, one has to search for additional information to know if the deaths are of Kurds killed by the Turkish bombardment in northern Syria, or people in Eastern Ghouta slaughtered by the Syrian government at the same time in much the same way. The greatest difference between the two situations is that the atrocities in Damascus are publicised by the media across the world, while in the Kurdish case they are regarded as scarcely worth a mention.
Over the past week in Afrin, the siege of heavily populated areas has tightened and the death toll has risen – 220 dead and 600 injured civilians according to the local Kurdish health authority. The suffering is likely to get a lot worse. The Turkish advance is speeding up, something the Kurds believe is happening because Turkey knows that international attention is focused exclusively on Eastern Ghouta. On Thursday, the Turkish forces announced that they had captured the large and strategically placed town of Jinderes, south-west of Afrin city. The latter is the largest urban centre in the enclave where most of the population driven from their villages in the countryside have taken refuge. Such is the chaos in Syria that nobody knows how many people are trapped in Afrin with the UN giving a figure of 323,000 and Kurdish leaders saying that it is closer to one million.
Afrin is about three times larger in area than Eastern Ghouta before the latest Syrian government assault, but, as we have seen in other sieges in Syria and Iraq, civilian casualties go up as the besiegers press people into a smaller and smaller zones. The water-pumping station in Afrin City was hit in the last few days, reducing the availability of drinking water.
As with Eastern Ghouta, there is a grizzly argument about whether or not the local inhabitants are free to leave Afrin or are being detained as “human shields”. Elham Ahmad, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council, which administers Kurdish-controlled areas and has just returned from Afrin, denied this and told me that people were free to leave.
As in Eastern Ghouta, where are these poor people in Afrin to go to if they leave their homes? At best, they will end up in a refugee camp and taking to the road may not be the safest course as the captured Kurds shown in the video mentioned earlier learned to their cost. Afrin is some distance from the main Kurdish majority areas and the road there has to skirt Turkish army positions and pass through territory controlled by the Syrian government.
Among reasons for Kurds in Afrin to stay where they are is the nature of the Turkish forces that invaded the city on 20 January. There are regular Turkish troops and special forces, but also as many as 25,000 fighters operating under the umbrella name of the Free Syrian Army. But evidence from the front line and from former FSA and Isis members suggests that many of these are battle-hardened Islamists who had previously fought with or alongside Isis and al-Qaeda. They detest the US-backed Kurds, who hold 25 per cent of Syria, as one of the main reasons for the Islamist defeat in the struggle for Syria. No Kurd who falls into their hands will be safe.
The Kurds have an additional fear that they are about to become the victims of a campaign of ethnic cleansing under which they will be cleared out of Afrin wholly or in part. This enclave has traditionally been one of their core majority areas, but on the day after the invasion President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that “55 per cent of Afrin is Arab, 35 per cent are the Kurds.” He added that Turkey’s aim was “to give Afrin back to its rightful owners.” It is a threat that carries all the more menace because the Syrian war has already seen widespread sectarian and ethnic cleansing, though the expulsion of a particular ethnic group from Afrin would be larger than earlier examples. The departure of the Kurds would have the advantage from the Turkish point of view of establishing a powerful Sunni Arab bloc north of Aleppo which would be under its influence.
The Kurds of Afrin could end up like the Greeks in Cyprus who fled or were driven from the northern part of the island by the Turkish invasion of 1974 and are still trying to return to their homes and lands 44 years later.
I have been struck since 2011 by the unbalanced way in which the Syrian war has been reported by the media. Vast attention was given to the sufferings inflicted on the people of East Aleppo in 2016 under attack by Syrian government and Russian air strikes, but very little notice was taken of the almost complete destruction of Isis-held Raqqa, with massive civilian casualties, at the hands of the US-led coalition.
I used to attribute such uneven coverage of the war to the greater skill and resources of the Syrian opposition in recording and publicising atrocities committed by the Syrian government and its allies. Isis had no interest in the fate of civilians under its control. But in Afrin there is no shortage of film of the suffering of civilians, but it simply is not widely broadcast or printed. In many respects, the role of the international media in the Syrian war has been as partial and misleading as the warring parties inside the country or their foreign sponsors without.
A new book traces how the CIA and U.S. counterinsurgency warfare operatives adopted lessons from the Nazis’ fight against the partisans and evolved into a dangerous law onto themselves, writes retired JAG Major Todd E. Pierce.
By Todd E. Pierce
Douglas Valentine has once again added to the store of knowledge necessary for American citizens to understand how the U.S. government actually works today, in his most recent book entitled The CIA As Organized Crime. (Valentine previously wrote The Phoenix Program, which should be read with the current book.)
The U.S. “deep state” – of which the CIA is an integral part – is an open secret now and the Phoenix Program (assassinations, death squads, torture, mass detentions, exploitation of information) has been its means of controlling populations. Consequently, knowing the deep state’s methods is the only hope of building a democratic opposition to the deep state and to restore as much as possible the Constitutional system we had in previous centuries, as imperfect as it was.
Princeton University political theorist Sheldon Wolin described the U.S. political system in place by 2003 as “inverted totalitarianism.” He reaffirmed that in 2009 after seeing a year of the Obama administration. Correctly identifying the threat against constitutional governance is the first step to restore it, and as Wolin understood, substantive constitutional government ended long before Donald Trump campaigned. He’s just taking unconstitutional governance to the next level in following the same path as his recent predecessors. However, even as some elements of the “deep state” seek to remove Trump, the President now has many “deep state” instruments in his own hands to be used at his unreviewable discretion.
Many “never-Trumpers” of both parties see the deep state’s national security bureaucracy as their best hope to destroy Trump and thus defend constitutional government, but those hopes are misguided. After all, the deep state’s bureaucratic leadership has worked arduously for decades to subvert constitutional order.
As Michael Glennon, author of National Security and Double Government, pointed out in a June 2017 Harper’s essay, if “the president maintains his attack, splintered and demoralized factions within the bureaucracy could actually support — not oppose — many potential Trump initiatives, such as stepped-up drone strikes, cyberattacks, covert action, immigration bans, and mass surveillance.”
Glennon noted that the propensity of “security managers” to back policies which ratchet up levels of security “will play into Trump’s hands, so that if and when he finally does declare victory, a revamped security directorate could emerge more menacing than ever, with him its devoted new ally.” Before that happens, it is incumbent for Americans to understand what Valentine explains in his book of CIA methods of “population control” as first fully developed in the Vietnam War’s Phoenix Program.
Hating the U.S.
There also must be the realization that our “national security” apparatchiks — principally but not solely the CIA — have served to exponentially increase the numbers of those people who hate the U.S. Some of these people turn to terrorism as an expression of that hostility. Anyone who is at all familiar with the CIA and Al Qaeda knows that the CIA has been Al Qaeda’s most important “combat multiplier” since 9/11, and the CIA can be said to have birthed ISIS as well with the mistreatment of incarcerated Iraqi men in U.S. prisons in Iraq.
Indeed, by following the model of the Phoenix Program, the CIA must be seen in the Twenty-first Century as a combination of the ultimate “Murder, Inc.,” when judged by the CIA’s methods such as drone warfare and its victims; and the Keystone Kops, when the multiple failures of CIA policies are considered. This is not to make light of what the CIA does, but the CIA’s misguided policies and practices have served to generate wrath, hatred and violence against Americans, which we see manifested in cities such as San Bernardino, Orlando, New York and Boston.
Pointing out the harm to Americans is not to dismiss the havoc that Americans under the influence of the CIA have perpetrated on foreign populations. But “morality” seems a lost virtue today in the U.S., which is under the influence of so much militaristic war propaganda that morality no longer enters into the equation in determining foreign policy.
In addition to the harm the CIA has caused to people around the world, the CIA works tirelessly at subverting its own government at home, as was most visible in the spying on and subversion of the torture investigation by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The subversion of democracy also includes the role the CIA plays in developing and disseminating war propaganda as “information warfare,” upon the American people. This is what the Rand Corporation under the editorship of Zalmay Khalilzad has described as “conditioning the battlefield,” which begins with the minds of the American population.
Douglas Valentine discusses and documents the role of the CIA in disseminating pro-war propaganda and disinformation as complementary to the violent tactics of the Phoenix Program in Vietnam. Valentine explains that “before Phoenix was adopted as the model for policing the American empire, many US military commanders in Vietnam resisted the Phoenix strategy of targeting civilians with Einsatzgruppen-style ‘special forces’ and Gestapo-style secret police.”
Military Commanders considered that type of program a flagrant violation of the Law of War. “Their main job is to zap the in-betweeners – you know, the people who aren’t all the way with the government and aren’t all the way with the Viet Cong either. They figure if you zap enough in-betweeners, people will begin to get the idea,” according to one quote from The Phoenix Program referring to the unit tasked with much of the Phoenix operations.
Comparing the Phoenix Program and its operatives to “Einsatzgruppen-style ‘special forces’ and Gestapo-style secret police” is not a distortion of the strategic understanding of each. Both programs were extreme forms of repression operating under martial law principles where the slightest form of dissent was deemed to represent the work of the “enemy.” Hitler’s Bandit Hunters: The SS and the Nazi Occupation of Europe by Philip W. Blood describes German “Security Warfare” as practiced in World War II, which can be seen as identical in form to the Phoenix Program as to how the enemy is defined as anyone who is “potentially” a threat, deemed either “partizans” or terrorists.
That the Germans included entire racial categories in that does not change the underlying logic, which was, anyone deemed an internal enemy in a territory in which their military operated had to be “neutralized” by any means necessary. The U.S. military and the South Vietnamese military governments operated under the same principles but not based on race, rather the perception that certain areas and villages were loyal to the Viet Cong.
This repressive doctrine was also not unique to the Nazis in Europe and the U.S. military in Vietnam. Similar though less sophisticated strategies were used against the American Indians and by the imperial powers of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, including by the U.S. in its newly acquired territories of the Philippines and in the Caribbean. This “imperial policing,” i.e., counter-insurgency, simply moved to more manipulative and, in ways, more violent levels.
That the U.S. drew upon German counter-insurgency doctrine, as brutal as it was, is well documented. This is shown explicitly in a 2011 article published in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies entitled German Counterinsurgency Revisited by Charles D. Melson. He wrote that in 1942, Nazi commander Heinrich Himmler named a deputy for “anti-bandit warfare,” (Bevollmachtigter fur die Bandenkampfung im Osten), SS-General von dem Bach, whose responsibilities expanded in 1943 to head all SS and police anti-bandit units and operations. He was one of the architects of the Einsatzguppen “concept of anti-partisan warfare,” a German predecessor to the “Phoenix Program.”
It wasn’t a coincidence that this “anti-partisan” warfare concept should be adopted by U.S. forces in Vietnam and retained to the present day. Melson pointed out that a “post-war German special forces officer described hunter or ranger units as ‘men who knew every possible ruse and tactic of guerrilla warfare. They had gone through the hell of combat against the crafty partisans in the endless swamps and forests of Russia.’”
Consequently, “The German special forces and reconnaissance school was a sought after posting for North Atlantic Treaty Organization special operations personnel,” who presumably included members of the newly created U.S. Army Special Forces soldiers, which was in part headquartered at Bad Tolz in Germany, as well as CIA paramilitary officers.
Just as with the later Phoenix Program to the present-day U.S. global counterinsurgency, Melson wrote that the “attitude of the [local] population and the amount of assistance it was willing to give guerilla units was of great concern to the Germans. Different treatment was supposed to be accorded to affected populations, bandit supporters, and bandits, while so-called population and resource control measures for each were noted (but were in practice, treated apparently one and the same). ‘Action against enemy agitation’ was the psychological or information operations of the Nazi period. The Nazis believed that, ‘Because of the close relationship of guerilla warfare and politics, actions against enemy agitation are a task that is just as important as interdiction and combat actions. All means must be used to ward off enemy influence and waken and maintain a clear political will.’”
This is typical of any totalitarian system – a movement or a government – whether the process is characterized as counterinsurgency or internal security. The idea of any civilian collaboration with the “enemy” is the basis for what the U.S. government charges as “conspiracy” in the Guantanamo Military Commissions.
Valentine explains the Phoenix program as having been developed by the CIA in 1967 to combine “existing counterinsurgency programs in a concerted effort to ‘neutralize’ the Vietcong infrastructure (VCI).” He explained further that “neutralize” meant “to kill, capture, or make to defect.” “Infrastructure” meant civilians suspected of supporting North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers. Central to the Phoenix program was that its targets were civilians, making the operation a violation of the Geneva Conventions which guaranteed protection to civilians in time of war.
“The Vietnam’s War’s Silver Lining: A Bureaucratic Model for Population Control Emerges” is the title of Chapter 3. Valentine writes that the “CIA’s Phoenix program changed how America fights its wars and how the public views this new type of political and psychological warfare, in which civilian casualties are an explicit objective.” The intent of the Phoenix program evolved from “neutralizing” enemy leaders into “a program of systematic repression for the political control of the South Vietnamese people. It sought to accomplish this through a highly bureaucratized system of disposing of people who could not be ideologically assimilated.” The CIA claimed a legal basis for the program in “emergency decrees” and orders for “administrative detention.”
Valentine refers to a paper by David Kilcullen entitled Countering Global Insurgency. Kilcullen is one of the so-called “counter-insurgency experts” whom General David Petraeus gathered together in a cell to promote and refine “counter-insurgency,” or COIN, for the modern era. Fred Kaplan, who is considered a “liberal author and journalist” at Slate, wrote a panegyric to these cultists entitled, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. The purpose of this cell was to change the practices of the U.S. military into that of “imperial policing,” or COIN, as they preferred to call it.
But Kilcullen argued in his paper that “The ‘War on Terrorism” is actually a campaign to counter a global insurgency. Therefore, Kilcullen argued, “we need a new paradigm, capable of addressing globalised insurgency.” His “disaggregation strategy” called for “actions to target the insurgent infrastructure that would resemble the unfairly maligned (but highly effective) Vietnam-era Phoenix program.”
He went on, “Contrary to popular mythology, this was largely a civilian aid and development program, supported by targeted military pacification operations and intelligence activity to disrupt the Viet Cong Infrastructure. A global Phoenix program (including the other key elements that formed part of the successful Vietnam CORDS system) would provide a useful start point to consider how Disaggregation would develop in practice.”
It is readily apparent that, in fact, a Phoenix-type program is now U.S. global policy and — just like in Vietnam — it is applying “death squad” strategies that eliminate not only active combatants but also civilians who simply find themselves in the same vicinity, thus creating antagonisms that expand the number of fighters.
Corraborative evidence of Valentine’s thesis is, perhaps surprisingly, provided by the CIA’s own website where a number of redacted historical documents have been published. Presumably, they are documents first revealed under the Freedom of Information Act. A few however are copies of news articles once available to the public but now archived by the CIA which has blacked-out portions of the articles.
The Bloody Reality
One “sanitized” article — approved for release in 2011 — is a partially redacted New Times article of Aug. 22, 1975, by Michael Drosnin. The article recounts a story of a U.S. Army counter-intelligence officer “who directed a small part of a secret war aimed not at the enemy’s soldiers but at its civilian leaders.” He describes how a CIA-directed Phoenix operative dumped a bag of “eleven bloody ears” as proof of six people killed.
The officer, who recalled this incident in 1971, said, “It made me sick. … I couldn’t go on with what I was doing in Vietnam. . . . It was an assassination campaign . . . my job was to identify and eliminate VCI, the Viet Cong ‘infrastructure’ – the communist’s shadow government. I worked directly with two Vietnamese units, very tough guys who didn’t wear uniforms . . . In the beginning they brought back about 10 percent alive. By the end they had stopped taking prisoners. …
“How many VC they got I don’t know. I saw a hell of a lot of dead bodies. We’d put a tag on saying VCI, but no one really knew – it was just some native in black pajamas with 16 bullet holes.”
This led to an investigation by New Times in a day when there were still “investigative reporters,” and not the government sycophants of today. Based on first-hand accounts, their investigation concluded that Operation Phoenix was the “only systematized kidnapping, torture and assassination program ever sponsored by the United States government. . . . Its victims were noncombatants.” At least 40,000 were murdered, with “only” about 8,000 supposed Viet Cong political cadres targeted for execution, with the rest civilians (including women and children) killed and “later conveniently labeled VCI. Hundreds of thousands were jailed without trial, often after sadistic abuse.” The article notes that Phoenix was conceived, financed, and directed by the Central Intelligence Agency, as Mr. Valentine writes.
A second article archived by the CIA was by the Christian Science Monitor, dated Jan. 5, 1971, describing how the Saigon government was “taking steps … that could help eliminate one of the most glaring abuses of its controversial Phoenix program, which is aimed against the Viet Cong political and administrative apparatus.” Note how the Monitor shifted blame away from the CIA and onto the South Vietnamese government.
But the article noted that one of the most persistent criticisms of Phoenix was that it resulted “in the arrest and imprisonment of many innocent civilians.” These were called “Class C Communist offenders,” some of whom may actually have been forced to commit such “belligerent acts” as digging trenches or carrying rice. It was those alleged as the “hard core, full-time cadre” who were deemed to make up the “shadow government” designated as Class A and B Viet Cong.
Yet “security committees” throughout South Vietnam, under the direction of the CIA, sentenced at least 10,000 “Class C civilians” to prison each year, far more than Class A and B combined. The article stated, “Thousands of these prisoners are never brought to court trial, and thousands of other have never been sentenced.” The latter statement would mean they were just held in “indefinite detention,” like the prisoners held at Guantanamo and other U.S. detention centers with high levels of CIA involvement.
Not surprisingly to someone not affiliated with the CIA, the article found as well that “Individual case histories indicate that many who have gone to prison as active supporters of neither the government nor the Viet Cong come out as active backers of the Viet Cong and with an implacable hatred of the government.” In other words, the CIA and the COIN enthusiasts are achieving the same results today with the prisons they set up in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Valentine broadly covers the illegalities of the CIA over the years, including its well-documented role in facilitating the drug trade over the years. But, in this reviewer’s opinion, his most valuable contribution is his description of the CIA’s participation going back at least to the Vietnam War in the treatment of what the U.S. government today calls “unlawful combatants.”
“Unlawful combatants” is a descriptive term made up by the Bush administration to remove people whom U.S. officials alleged were “terrorists” from the legal protections of the Geneva Conventions and Human Rights Law and thus to justify their capture or killing in the so-called “Global War on Terror.” Since the U.S. government deems them “unlawful” – because they do not belong to an organized military structure and do not wear insignia – they are denied the “privilege” of belligerency that applies to traditional soldiers. But – unless they take a “direct part in hostilities” – they would still maintain their civilian status under the law of war and thus not lose the legal protection due to civilians even if they exhibit sympathy or support to one side in a conflict.
Ironically, by the Bush administration’s broad definition of “unlawful combatants,” CIA officers and their support structure also would fit the category. But the American public is generally forgiving of its own war criminals though most self-righteous and hypocritical in judging foreign war criminals. But perhaps given sufficient evidence, the American public could begin to see both the immorality of this behavior and its counterproductive consequences.
This is not to condemn all CIA officers, some of whom acted in good faith that they were actually defending the United States by acquiring information on a professed enemy in the tradition of Nathan Hale. But it is to harshly condemn those CIA officials and officers who betrayed the United States by subverting its Constitution, including waging secret wars against foreign countries without a declaration of war by Congress. And it decidedly condemns the CIA war criminals who acted as a law unto themselves in the torture and murder of foreign nationals, as Valentine’s book describes.
Talleyrand is credited with saying, “They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” Reportedly, that was borrowed from a 1796 letter by a French naval officer, which stated, in the original language: Personne n’est corrigé; personne n’a su ni rien oublier ni rien appendre. In English: “Nobody has been corrected; no one has known to forget, nor yet to learn anything.” That sums up the CIA leadership entirely.
Douglas Valentine’s book is a thorough documentation of that fact and it is essential reading for all Americans if we are to have any hope for salvaging a remnant of representative government.
Todd E. Pierce retired as a Major in the US Army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps in November 2012. His most recent assignment was defense counsel in the Office of Chief Defense Counsel, Office of Military Commissions.
WASHINGTON — When Saudi Arabia’s crown prince visits the White House next week, he’s expected to be welcomed as a reformer who’s expanded women’s rights in one of the most restrictive countries in the world, allowing them to drive and attend sports events.
Yet there is one Saudi woman whom U.S. officials say has not benefited from the prince’s rise: his own mother. Fourteen current and former senior U.S. officials told NBC News that intelligence shows Prince Mohammed bin Salman — often referred to by his initials MBS — blocked his mother from seeing his father, King Salman, more than two years ago and has kept her away from him as the young prince rapidly amassed power.
Prince Mohammed, a key ally of the Trump White House, has concocted various explanations of his mother’s whereabouts over the years, such as that she’s out of the country receiving medical treatment, so King Salman would not know his son has been behind her continued absence, the current and former officials said.
U.S. officials interviewed for this story believe, based on several years of intelligence, that MBS took action against his mother because he was concerned that she opposed his plans for a power grab that could divide the royal family and might use her influence with the king to prevent it. The officials said MBS placed his mother under house arrest at least for some time at a palace in Saudi Arabia, without the king’s knowledge.
Last June, at just age 31, Prince Mohammed abruptly displaced his cousin to become crown prince of the oil-rich kingdom. He implemented some economic and social changes in the following months, but also made some brazen power moves at home and in the region. In November MBS oversaw the arrests of more than 200 Saudi officials and businessmen, including prominent princes and rival members of the royal family, in what the government has described as a crackdown on corruption.
President Donald Trump defended the Saudi government for “harshly treating” those who were imprisoned as part of the effort. Trump, and his son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner, have embraced MBS as a close partner and critical player in the administration’s Middle East strategy.
The White House announced Monday that the president will meet with the crown prince on March 20, saying Trump “looks forward to discussing ways to strengthen ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia and to advance our common security and economic priorities.”
But the meeting, which is part of MBS’s multistate tour across the U.S., comes as some senior U.S. officials are increasingly concerned his aggressive tactics could sow more instability in the Middle East.
The U.S. intelligence assessment of Prince Mohammed’s actions against his mother, which American officials said has long been concealed from both King Salman and the public, is an example of MBS’s willingness to remove any perceived impediment to solidifying his position as Saudi Arabia’s next king, the current and former officials said.
Officials said the assessment of the dynamic between MBS and his mother, which has not been previously reported, is based on a combination of human intelligence, intercepts and information shared with the U.S. from other countries.
The determination that the crown prince’s mother, Princess Fahda bint Falah Al Hathleen, was being kept from King Salman without his knowledge was first made during the Obama administration, the officials said. That assessment has not changed since Trump took office, according to the current officials.
The Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington denied that the princess is under any kind of house arrest or separation from her husband.
Where is King Salman’s wife?
The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence, said the 82-year-old King Salman has at times been told his third wife is out of the country receiving medical treatment. They said the king has told people around him that he misses her and apparently does not know her true location or status. Multiple U.S. officials have told NBC News previously that their interactions with the king suggest he is not consistently lucid.
At one point during a meeting at the White House in September 2015, King Salman told then-President Barack Obama that his wife was in New York for medical treatment and that he hoped to visit her while in the U.S., officials said. The officials said Obama did not inform the king that his wife was not in New York, but the king’s comment was viewed as further evidence of what U.S. officials already had gleaned from intelligence on the royal family.
In early 2016, U.S. officials picked up communications in which MBS was talking about his efforts to keep his mother from his father without the king knowing, according to current and former officials.
A spokesperson for Obama declined to comment, citing the privacy of the former president’s conversations with foreign leaders.
The CIA declined comment on any intelligence on the Saudi royal family. A spokesperson for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence also declined comment for this story.
While Prince Mohammed’s power base began expanding at home several years ago, his brashest moves have coincided with the strong and early support he’s received from the Trump White House.
Less than two months after his inauguration, Trump hosted MBS at the White House, not the then-crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef. MBS, who began trying to forge close ties with the Trump team immediately after the 2016 election, has spent hours with Kushner in Washington and Riyadh.
A spokesperson for Kushner, who oversees the administration’s efforts to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, declined to comment for this story and referred questions to the National Security Council, which also declined comment.
‘We’ve all pinned our hopes on him’
Trump officials view MBS as the best hope for seeing economic and social changes in the tightly controlled kingdom.
“We’ve all pinned our hopes on him,” one senior White House official said.
It’s a stark contrast to the U.S.-Saudi relationship during Obama’s presidency. Then the two countries clashed over Obama’s diplomatic outreach to Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional adversary.
Now Saudi Arabia is integral to U.S. policy goals in the Middle East, particularly when it comes to blunting Iran’s influence in the region and reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
In May, Trump made Saudi Arabia the first foreign country he visited as president. A month later MBS unexpectedly supplanted Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince. As part of the power shift, bin Nayef was put under house arrest, though the restriction was later lifted.
The crown prince’s younger brother, Prince Khaled bin Salman, was named Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador to the U.S. in July. Both have the same mother.
“The president and Jared very much see Mohammed Bin Salman as their man in the region,” said Andrew Bowen, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who focuses on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.
Trump backed a Saudi-led blockade of Qatar over the advice of some of his own advisers and supported the government’s jailing of hundreds of wealthy Saudis accused of corruption. “I have great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing,” Trump wrote on Twitter in November as the arrests came under international scrutiny. “Some of those they are harshly treating have been ‘milking’ their country for years!”
Many prisoners were released in recent weeks after agreeing to undisclosed financial settlements with the government.
An interview offer, with strings attached
Bowen cautioned, however, that Trump’s strong support for MBS’s early moves could backfire over time due to the young prince’s own “insularity and his own recklessness.”
One person close to the royal family said Prince Mohammed and his mother had a falling out several years ago in part because he was concerned she was trying to empower her siblings. This person said MBS wanted to avoid a dynamic that played out with a previous Saudi king in which the brothers of one of his wives became extremely powerful and wealthy.
Fatimah Baeshen, a spokesperson for Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Washington, vehemently denied that the crown prince has kept his mother away from the king without the king’s knowledge.
“It is absolutely not true and if you would like to ask Her Royal Highness the Princess yourself, this includes asking her in-person, we would be happy to arrange it immediately,” Baeshen said in a statement.
NBC News, which first contacted Baeshen about this story on Dec. 22, 2017, did not accept the offer to speak with the princess because the Saudi government would not allow NBC to disclose that one of its reporters had met with her or use any information she provided for this story under any conditions, including if she was granted anonymity to talk about sensitive matters as others in this story were.
Another spokesman for the Saudi embassy then offered for NBC News to speak with sources close to the crown prince’s mother, an offer NBC News accepted.
On Jan. 30, Kabil wrote in an email that it was the Saudi government’s impression that NBC News would speak with the crown prince’s mother and she “would then put you in touch with her circle of confidantes.”
NBC responded by reiterating its position that a reporter would not meet with the crown prince’s mother unless NBC could disclose that a meeting took place. NBC asked again for names of people close to her whom reporters could contact independently.
Kabil responded by calling NBC’s position “reckless,” and said it would cause the princess distress and force her into the public spotlight.
“The story is absolutely false and highly offensive,” Kabil wrote. “The Princess offered to meet with you privately to personally refute the story but you declined. Instead, you have chosen to rely entirely on unnamed and anonymous sources for your reporting. Thus, your viewers cannot judge your sources’ motives or credibility.”
Assessing the inner workings of the Saudi royal family can be difficult, particularly when it comes to women, U.S. officials and Saudi experts said. They noted that the wife of a king under house arrest, confined to a palace or denied access to her husband could go unnoticed for quite a while. Such a dynamic could be difficult to determine because the king’s wives are rarely seen in public, they said, and it is considered disrespectful to ask about a Saudi man’s wife.
Brian Katulis, a senior fellow for national security at the Center for American Progress who has met with top Saudi officials, including the crown prince, said it’s been particularly challenging to determine what’s happening in the kingdom over the past year because of efforts by different factions to frame what’s unfolding.
“In absolute monarchies controlled by a ruling family like Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to tell what is actually going on inside these power shifts,” Katulis said, adding that he had not heard of any issues related to the crown prince’s mother and had no way to verify it.
Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s Permanent Envoy to the UN, has said that the terrorist organizations may use chemical weapons against the Syrian people so they may blame Damascus, which Sabbagh said would give the US military a pretext to stage more attacks.
“Syria has confidential information that the states which sponsor those terrorist organizations will exploit the convening of the executive council of The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to make their, he was quoted by the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) as saying.
He emphasized that allegations of Syrian authorities’ use of chemical weapons “always coincides with its political and military achievements, and that they constitute a US bid to stop the collapse of the terrorists,” according to SANA.
Sabbagh also pledged to inform the OPCW about the possible smuggling of chemical weapons to Syria via Turkish territory. He reiterated the Syrian government’s condemnation of any use of chemical weapons, which he stressed run counter to “all international laws and conventions.”
His statement came after local media reported on Tuesday that the Syrian Army had uncovered a clandestine plant in the suburban Damascus region of Eastern Ghouta that was used by the terrorists to produce military-grade agents.
The discovery of high-tech equipment at the plant indicates that European or Saudi experts could have been involved in the illegal production of a spate of toxic chemicals, including chlorine, according to the media.In separate development last week, Damascus sent more than 100 letters to the UN Security Council, notifying it of the terrorist groups’ use of chemical substances against civilians in Syria.
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Moscow is extremely concerned over US statements on a possible strike against Syria
Recent statements made by United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Nikki Haley on a possible strike against Syria raises indignation and extreme concern, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Such belligerent and irresponsible statements of the American representative raise indignation and extreme concern,” the statement said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry stated that it was a blatant hypocrisy on behalf of Washington to make statements in favor of the political process in Syria, while the US forces are occupying a significant part of Syria in violation of the UN Charter and the international law.
“In fact, Washington is doing its utmost to cover up and preserve terrorist groupings, which are active near Damascus and in other provinces of Syria,” the statement said. “At the same time, the real situation in the Damascus suburb of Eastern Ghouta, which terrorists use to systematically shell the residential areas of the Syrian capital, is distorted.”
The ministry stated that the attempts of the United States and its allies to misinterpret the UN Resolution on Eastern Ghouta, which excludes terrorist groupings from the ceasefire, are absolutely unacceptable.
According to the statement, “…growing concern is caused by the incoming information on militants’ preparations to imitate the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government troops against civilians as the basis to justify US unilateral strikes against Damascus and government facilities in Syria.”
“Such criminal actions may also create a threat to the lives of Russian military advisers, including representatives of the Centre for the Reconciliation of the Warring Sides, who are staying at establishments in Damascus and at facilities of the Syrian Defense Ministry,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
“In this case, required retaliatory measures will be taken,” the ministry added.
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UNITED NATIONS/AMMAN (Reuters) – U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley warned on Monday that Washington “remains prepared to act if we must,” if the U.N. Security Council fails to act on Syria, as the Syrian army’s onslaught in eastern Ghouta continued unabated.
The United States asked the Security Council to demand an immediate 30-day ceasefire in Damascus and rebel-held eastern Ghouta, where Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia and Iran, say they are targeting “terrorist” groups which are shelling the capital.
The army’s onslaught in eastern Ghouta, backed by air and artillery strikes, has killed about 1,160 people since Feb. 18, a war monitor said, as Assad seeks to crush the last big rebel stronghold near the capital Damascus.
“It is not the path we prefer, but it is a path we have demonstrated we will take, and we are prepared to take again,” Haley told the 15-member Security Council. “When the international community consistently fails to act, there are times when states are compelled to take their own action.”
The United States bombed a Syrian government air base last year over a deadly chemical weapons attack.
The Security Council demanded a 30-day ceasefire across Syria in a unanimously adopted Feb. 24 resolution.
Russia and Damascus say a ceasefire ordered by the U.N. Security Council does not protect the fighters in eastern Ghouta, arguing that they are members of banned terrorist groups.
“There has been no cessation of hostilities,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday. “Violence continues in eastern Ghouta and beyond – including in Afrin, parts of Idlib and into Damascus and its suburbs.”
“No sieges have been lifted … To our knowledge, not one critically sick or wounded person has yet been evacuated.
Russia’s U.N. envoy Vassily Nebenzia also said some states were accusing the Syrian government of carrying our chemical weapons attacks in a bid to “prepare the ground for the unilateral use of force against sovereign Syria.”
“We have heard hints of that in the statements of some delegations today,” Nebenzia said. “Basically steps are being weighed which could hit regional stability very, very hard.”
The assault on Ghouta is one of the heaviest in the war, which enters its eighth year this week.
Thousands of families are sleeping in the open in the streets of the biggest town in the enclave, where there is no longer any room in packed cellars to shelter from government bombardment, local authorities said.
At least 70 people had been buried in a town park because air strikes made it unsafe to reach the cemetery on the outskirts, it said.
In a video filmed inside Douma, one man cowering in a heavily damaged shelter said: “It is completely uninhabitable. It is not even safe to put chickens in. There is no bathroom, just one toilet, and there are 300 people.”
Douma residents said dozens of people were trapped alive under rubble, with rescuers unable to reach them due to the intensity of the raids.
Government forces have now captured more than half the rebel enclave, entirely besieging Douma and the large town of Harasta, cutting them off from each other and neighbouring areas with advances on Saturday and Sunday.
In an apparent sign of local discontent with the rebel policy of holding out, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that hundreds of people protested in the town of Kafr Batna to demand a deal to end the onslaught.
Shots were fired at the crowd by unknown people and one person was killed, it said. The spokesman for Failaq al-Rahman, the main rebel group there, was not immediately available for comment.
A U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman said the United Nations was not part of that deal and still called for the urgent evacuation of more than 1,000 sick and wounded people in eastern Ghouta.
State television broadcasts from the government-controlled side of the battlefront showed dark grey clouds of smoke billowing from several places across a landscape of shattered buildings. A minaret had lost a chunk from one side of its slender tower. In the background, heavy vehicles could be heard rumbling past and the deep crump of explosions echoed around.
The Observatory, said on Monday the death toll in the civil war had passed half a million people.
It has confirmed the deaths of 511,000 people, it said, and has the names of more than 350,000 of them. About 85 percent were killed by government forces and their allies, it said.
Eastern Ghouta has been besieged for years after many of its residents joined the initial protests against Assad’s rule in 2011 that triggered the slide into civil war. The United Nations says 400,000 people live in the enclave, already suffering shortages of food and medicine even before the massive assault began in mid-February.
Assad says the assault on eastern Ghouta is needed to end the rule of Islamist insurgents over the civilian population and to stop mortar fire on nearby Damascus.
The United Nations has warned of dire shortages of food and medicine, where international deliveries have long been erratic and often obstructed before they could reach the enclave.
The expulsion of the rebels from eastern Ghouta would represent their biggest defeat since they lost their enclave in Aleppo in December 2016. They still control large areas in the northwest and southwest and a few scattered pockets elsewhere but have been driven from most major population centres.
Syrian jets also struck rebel-held towns in the country’s south, the first aerial attacks on the area since the United States and Russia brokered a deal making it a “de-escalation zone” last year, rebels and residents said.
Additional reporting by a reporter in eastern Ghouta and Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Bell